Dying For Gold: Book Review

April 9, 2003

Dying For Gold: The True Story Of The Giant Mine Murders
By Authors Lee Selleck & Francis Thompson

Published in 1997, Dying for Gold is an exhaustive work of investigative journalism written in the prose that one would expect of a riveting novel. Not only do the authors tell a true story that exhibits all of the intrigue and mystery of a contemporary action script; but their work, and the issues upon which it is based, are instructive to those active in Canadian industrial relations-workers, employers, unions, labour relations boards, industrial inquiry commissioners, politicians, and especially legislative policy-makers. Dying for Gold tells the tragic story of the death of nine replacement workers in a massive underground explosion that was purposely set to kill someone, if not them specifically. Their horrific deaths were the culmination of a calamity of conditions providing fertile ground for industrial violence of a magnitude rarely seen in modern times. Canadian industrial relations practitioners would be wise to study the Giant Mine case, as the conditions which practically made it inevitable that violence would erupt during that dispute are not anomalous in Canada today; and history has a habit of repeating itself.

The story really begins when, in 1990, Royal Oak Resources Ltd. assumed control of Giant Yellowknife Mines Ltd. Heading up the new management team was Peggy Witte, soon to be known as “Piggy Witte” by the mine’s unionized workers. Witte became notorious as a typical American-style union buster and she tried her best to live up to that reputation. After negotiations toward a new collective agreement reached an impasse, the members of Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers (CASAW) Local #4 voted to go on strike on May 23, 1992. In a blatant attempt to break the union, Witte kept the mine operational using staff, replacement workers and hourly union members who crossed the picket line. Practical warfare broke out on the picket lines as striking miners watched other workers cross their lines to take their jobs, while they and their families suffered the financial devastations of the strike. Royal Oak, on the other hand, continued to enjoy the income from production, albeit on a reduced scale.

Continued production was not all that the Royal Oak enjoyed, as the NWT government and RCMP were clearly on the side of the employer. Riot police and Pinkerton’s private security forces lined up against the strikers and complaints of harassment and intimidation were countered by those of assault and violence. Royal Oak dismissed 45 striking workers for alleged picket-line misconduct. Eventually, Royal Oak would be found guilty of numerous bad-faith violations of the Canada Labour Code; but that decision would not be forthcoming from the Canada Labour Relations Board until November 11, 1993 – that decision ending the strike at last. In the words of the Board, the strike had “been marked by a great deal of violence, vituperation and hatred, and among the horrible events associated with them has been the mine explosion of September 18, 1992, in which nine persons working in the mine died”. The decision is cited as Royal Oak Mines Inc. 93 di 21; 94 CLLC 16, 026 CLRB Decision No. 1037 Board File: 745-4513, for those interested in reading it in its entirety.

The striking miners did not return to work until December 1993 and Royal Oak Mines filed for bankruptcy in 1999. The story of the strike itself is intertwined with the investigation surrounding the murder of the nine replacement workers in the explosion of September 18, 1992. The authors examine the police investigation from numerous perspectives and the reader is led to the conclusion that an innocent man could very well be imprisoned for a crime which he did not commit. Ex-miner Roger Warren remains in prison for second degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, his appeals have been exhausted, and he will not be eligible for parole until 2013. If Warren is in fact innocent of the crimes, then the murderer or murderers are walking free today.

The story of the Giant Mine strike, with the violence and societal breakdown surrounding it, carries many lessons for industrial relations practitioners. In my opinion it most poignantly demonstrates the need for prompt pluralistic regulation of industrial disputes-in particular, the enactment of so-called “anti-scab” legislation in all Canadian jurisdictions. If Canadian society recognizes the legitimacy of collective bargaining – and by extension, the strike/lockout – (which it does), then those economic weapons within that system must be allowed to serve their intended purposes. When an employer can, in good faith or bad, undermine one side of the economic equation by continuing operations with replacement workers while strikers are economically starved, then the frustrations born of inequity that were seen at Giant Mine will assuredly erupt on a greater or lesser scale. Allowing replacement workers also enables employers to pit workers against each other as desperate unemployed persons are used to undermine the wages and conditions of employed unionized workers; a situation that can result in an economic race to the bottom for the working class.

I thoroughly enjoyed Dying for Gold and recommend it to all. For those who have no interest in industrial relations it is comparable to a well-written mystery novel, only it is true; for those who do, it is doubly fulfilling and educational. Being involved in the labour movement, I have had the pleasure of becoming personally acquainted with several of the individuals appearing in the book: Leo McGrady, the union’s lead labour lawyer; Gina Fiorillo, the junior lawyer in McGrady’s firm; & Vince Ready, one of the two Industrial Inquiry Commissioners appointed to the case.

Wayne E. Benedict is a Locomotive Engineer at BC Rail and President of the National, Automobile, Aerospace, Transportation and General Workers Union of Canada (CAW) Local 110. He is working toward his Bachelor of Human Resources and Labour Relations at Athabasca University.

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